National food supply-chain issues affecting Brookings

Addison DeHaven/Register: Child nutrition workers prepare for a recent lunch period at Medary Elementary. Due to national supply chain issues, food services in the Brookings area, including the school district, have had to make menu changes due to a shortage of supplies.

BROOKINGS – Repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic have continued to cause challenges for almost every business sector – especially in the restaurant/food industry. 

Local restaurants, despite the challenges, have been learning to deal with increases in food prices and long waits on supply shipments.

The primary cause of the national supply-chain issue is a lack of workers and manpower at coastal U.S. ports, such as Long Beach and Los Angeles, coupled with an increase in product demand. According to an October article in Bloomberg, ports along the coast are seeing a 26% increase in volume from the previous year. Massive shipping containers, filled with products and goods in high demand, are sitting idle off the coast waiting to be unloaded. 

On top of the issues at the ports, the trucking industry, the workhorse of the national supply chain, is also seeing a crisis-level shortage of workers. The lack of staffing has limited the amount of trucks that can haul goods cross-country. According to the American Trucking Association, the nationwide truck driver shortage grew from 61,500 pre-pandemic to 80,000 in 2021, per an October report, “despite dramatic pay increases over that same time period.”

Brookings restaurants

Local restaurants have been dealing with supply-chain issues for a while, Cubby’s Sports Bar & Grill manager Jeremy Deutsch said. 

“We’ve been dealing with this stuff for the past year-and-a-half,” Deutsch said.

At the Pheasant Restaurant and Lounge, head chef and general manager Michael Johnson explained that over the past couple years, they have seen “supply shortages from supplies to food products, sometimes with warning, sometimes with none.

“We have gone entire weeks with no delivery from certain producers and suppliers,” Johnson wrote in an email to the Register. 

Because of these shortages, the Pheasant and Cubby’s have both had to make some slight menu modifications and substitutions. 

Deutsch explained that some products, like chicken, “meat in general,” and fruit have become abnormally expensive. With the added expense, Deutsch said that they decided to “eat the cost” rather than make sweeping menu changes, explaining that the consistency of the menu is important for Cubby’s. 

For example, chicken wings have become so expensive that they are actually losing money on that item with the current price of chicken. But rather than eliminate the item altogether, Deutsch said they would rather “ride out” this current trend. 

Other things that Deutsch has seen at both Cubby’s and 9 Bar and Nightclub is a shortage on different beer and liquor. For example, instead of glass liter liquor bottles, distributors have had to substitute it with a plastic 750ml bottle. Other items that have seen shortages included cups and glassware. Deutsch said customers have been pretty understanding despite some of the minor changes, like a lack of a certain type of beer.

Despite the seemingly endless supply chain issues, Deutsch said things have gotten better in recent months and are expected to continue getting better. 

Numerous other local restaurants did not respond to the Register’s request for comments on supply chain issues.

School district

The Brookings School District has also felt the effects of the national supply chain issues. Child Nutrition Director Laura Swier said that because of some of the widespread issues, menu changes have been warranted to accommodate the shortages of some products.

Swier said that products “all over the board” have seen shortages, including protein items, such as chicken and beef, along with other items like tater tots.

For example, cheeseburgers were scheduled to be on the menu recently, but because the district’s food distributor would be unable to get the meat in on time, the menu for that day was changed to pizza crunchers. 

The school district is required to meet federal nutritional guidelines set by the USDA. Despite a waiver that granted school districts exceptions to these guidelines, the district has been able to still meet these guidelines this year despite some hurdles along the way.

“We are trying our best to offer the nutritional standards to our learners,” Swier said. 

Swier explained that the shortages are due to labor issues, because there are staffing issues where the products are made along with staffing shortages to get the product delivered. 

“If the product gets to the distributor, they are also having labor shortages,” Swier said. “If it gets to the kitchen, then we have what we can make, but we also having staffing shortages, too, so we are needing to accommodate for all of that.”

Swier said distributors are in constant contact about when products will be available and provide daily updates on shipping. Despite the shortages, communication between the district and the distributors has been a great success, she added.

“They have been a great help in communicating with us,” Swier said. 

On top of the product shortages, the district is also serving 800 more meals per day (between breakfast and lunch) this year in the school cafeterias, compared to the 2020-21 school year. According to Swier’s administrative report, the district has provided nearly 200,000 breakfast and lunch meals for students and staff. The higher demand coupled with the rising cost of food and limited resources have made Swier’s job quite challenging this year, Superintendent Klint Willert said. 

“I just want to say that I’m incredibly proud of the work that (Swier) is doing in a department that has a lot of variability in it right now,” Willert said. 

Swier said that she wants to thank the parents and families for their patience and understanding with the changes in menus that have occurred during the semester.

“Thank you to the child nutrition staff that we are working with less people and providing so many more meals,” Swier said. “Everybody’s putting their best foot forward to make this happen.”

While the district has had to overcome some serious supply chain issues locally, on a national level, the issues have been more severe. Willert explained that the USDA has taken an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to overcome some of the labor and product shortages that proliferate districts across the country. He mentioned that in some areas (not Brookings or even South Dakota), districts have had to give out sack lunches for all because of a lack of hot food available. 

“We will not be at the point in the foreseeable future,” Swier said. “That would be a nightmare.”

“It’s something that is a real challenge that schools across the country are facing,” Willert said.

Both Willert and Swier are “hopefully optimistic” that supply chain issues for the district will start to subside in the coming months. 

“We are hoping for the best but planning for the worst,” Willert said. “We are going to continue to be flexible and ask that people offer grace as we move forward.”

Contact Addison DeHaven at [email protected]


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